Leadership at the End of the World (Interview)

Curiosity and ambition are not enough. What can we learn from explorers who reached the end of the world?

Leadership at the End of the World (Interview)

Having been at the end of the world himself, Javier Cacho Researcher, Writer, Scientific Communicator, reveals valuable leadership lessons from notable polar explorers. He was a member of the First Spanish Scientific Expedition to Antarctica (1986-1987), and he has returned to Antarctica on six other occasions, the last three as base commander of the Spanish Antarctic Station. He has been secretary of the Spanish National Committee of Antarctic Research, and a researcher at the National Commission for Space Research, the National Commission of Science and Technology, and the National Institute of Aerospace Technology. He has authored several books on the history of polar exploration.

What is the essential skill set and mindset of a successful leader of a scientific research base and team at the end of the world – in Antarctica, the only continent where there is no business school?

I do not believe that there is a unique form of successful leadership. All people are different and the scenarios that surround us are much more so. Therefore, the way of making decisions can be very different and all can lead to a successful result.

Although, in my opinion, and with the experience of having participated in several scientific expeditions to polar regions and having been on three occasions base commander of an Antarctic research station, I believe that there are a couple of characteristics that should never be lacking.

The first is "always be alert". In life and especially in Antarctica, the circumstances that surround us can change rapidly. The leader's mission is to be aware of these changes, try to predict or intuit them, or at least detect them as soon as possible. This would allow them to take decisions that reorient the way of acting to achieve the intended objectives.

In Antarctica, what does it mean “to be alert”?

Being alert means, in the case of Antarctica, being aware of everything that surrounds us –from the weather to the operational level of the equipment, and especially the mood of the team members. The latter may sound strange but is of great importance when you are in a small community separated from your natural affective environment (family and friends) and surrounded by a natural environment of great beauty, but also dangerous and lethal. Logically, to detect those moods in the members of your team and be able to intervene delicately, a high dose of empathy is necessary.

The second characteristic is "calmness". When everything flows correctly, optimism is generalised, but when circumstances are adverse, restlessness, nervousness and insecurity make a dent in people. At that time, it is necessary for the leader to remain calm, not to be dominated by events. Your team has to see that you are sure of what you are doing. Although you are not at all.

Often, leaders are first experts in some field before they take on management and leadership responsibilities. Many go to business school to master the skills needed. Was Antarctica your “business school” or did you prepare in advance?

Since I was young when I went to the mountains, I used to play the role of the leader with my group of friends. Years later, I led a small research group, but my real challenge and my "business school" was Antarctica. I went there for the first time with the First Spanish Scientific Expedition to Antarctica. On that occasion, I was just a member of the scientific team without any management responsibility, which allowed me to observe and learn. A couple of years later, I led two research campaigns on that continent, one of which took place during part of the winter. They were also moments of learning, of seeing how other people behaved. Finally, a few years later I had to face the challenge of leading one of the Spanish scientific stations in Antarctica. That was very hard, but I managed to do it.

I will always remember that the people at the station started by addressing me as “Dr Cacho”, then they referred to me in a more personal way, “Javier”, and finally ended up calling me simply "Boss", as Shackleton was called by his men. It was an evolution that touched me.

Well, all that was a long time ago. In those times everything was more rudimentary. Nowadays, the people who are in charge of the Antarctic stations are given special leadership courses. That preparation is important, as are the business schools. Knowing certain techniques is not everything, of course, but it can help you master the skills necessary to manage a team in difficult situations.

The world has been truly global for 500 years since the three-year voyage of Magellan–Elcano (1519 to 1522). Then, at the dawn of the 20th century, the North and South poles were conquered as well. What human traits have made these epic discoveries possible?

Undoubtedly, the curiosity of the human being. The curiosity to know the unknown is what has moved the human species to spread throughout the planet. This curiosity has led us to populate all the places on Earth that were apt to be inhabited. From the ice of the Arctic to the African deserts, from the Amazon jungles to the highest mountains.

Obviously, there are always some people less curious than others, but in any community there is always someone who does not want to continue being held by routines. Someone who has the vital need to leave their environment, to climb the mountains that surround them and see what lies behind. And that is despite all the difficulties and dangers.

Curiosity also moves science. In this case, we seek to know the laws that govern physical phenomena. I would even dare to say that the economy and the whole of society are moved by curiosity. Because there are always "curious" people who want to know how the market will behave towards a new product, or who want to try a new organisational model to increase the efficiency of a company. In my opinion, curiosity has moved the world, and will continue to do so.

You have written fascinating books about the major Arctic and Antarctic explorers of the 19th to 20th centuries. Your latest book is about a one-of-a-kind explorer – the ship named Fram, a technological masterpiece that took on a record number of expeditions for her time and travelled the globe from its North to its South? What can business leaders today learn from these stories?

The Fram, and the explorers that commanded her on her three mythical trips, teach us the importance of professionalism. The Fram arose from the idea of a great scientist, Fridtjof Nansen. No ship up to that moment had been able to withstand the pressure of the polar ice, and Nansen, after much thinking about the problem, decided on a completely different design to anything that had existed before. Then, one of the great naval builders of the time, Colin Arche, was put in charge of its construction. And he built it, when many others had not dared to undertake the challenge.

In her first and second expeditions, the Fram ship had a great captain, Otto Sverdrup. One of the great experts in polar navigation in those times, such was his prestige that he was put in charge of a Russian expedition to rescue a ship lost in the Arctic. Finally, the third trip of the Fram was under the command of Roald Amundsen, the best polar explorer of those times.

For me the lesson of the Fram is that the key to getting ahead with a project is to know the subject in depth and surround yourself with those who also know it. In a word: professionalism.

Read: Business and Leadership Ethics: Why Is It Important?

What did the polar explorers have in common and how were their leadership styles different? What was crucial for their success or failure?

Ambition is what all explorers had in common. I know ambition is a word that may have a pejorative meaning, but it should not be like that. Ambition is the intense desire to achieve the goal we have set for ourselves. Ambition is what leads us to fight with all our strength until we reach our dreams.

In that, all the explorers were equal. All had set a goal and fought to get it, no matter the difficulties and hardships that they had to go through to achieve it.

But ambition by itself is not enough. It needs to be based on professionalism. Only a well-trained person will achieve the goals that have been proposed. If you are not a good professional, everything will end in disaster. These two factors, ambition and professionalism, are the key to success or failure.

However, they had different leadership styles. Robert Scott was a captain of the Royal Navy and his style was more authoritarian than this of Shackleton, who tried to involve his team in his decisions. Amundsen and Peary led their teams with the assurance that they knew they were doing what needed to be done. Others were rude in their dealings with their people, and yet others, such as Jean-Baptiste Charcot, appealed to their team's sense of responsibility and loyalty. But every one of them had their minds fixed on what they wanted to achieve and did not compromise until they reached it.

Polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton is the subject of a Harvard Business School case study. Why?

Shackleton has a case study at Harvard because of his leadership. He had an innate ability to form and lead teams. He was able to select the right person from a short interview in which they talked about the most disparate topics and, apparently, without the slightest relation to the project he was going to develop. That ability, which we could call "intuition", rarely failed him.

He knew how to motivate the people who composed his team to work hard and give the best of themselves. He spoke clearly, he did not hide the problems, but he gave the keys to overcome them. He was a close leader. In Victorian society – structured in very hermetic social classes – he had a personal predisposition to break down those barriers and approach even the humblest of his men as a companion. But that familiarity with his men did not detract from his authority; his personality was so strong that the opposite happened: it made his authority stronger.

Shackleton knew how to detect when circumstances had changed, and immediately redefined his goals, forgetting his dreams and focusing on what was important: the lives of his men. That he did when he turned around near the South Pole and when the ice trapped his ship and he had to abort his plan to cross Antarctica.

And finally, although his skills did not end here, he knew how to sacrifice himself for his men. They were not pawns that he used to achieve his goals, they were his team, and that connection led him to have a protective feeling that, in some cases, almost cost him his life.

We are living the fourth industrial revolution. What is it that technologies can't replace at the end of the world, although they have made a lot more possible?

Recently, I was interviewed on radio, and I spoke about how communications have evolved since I first went to Antarctica, more than 30 years ago. On that occasion I had to talk to my wife through telegrams, that is, using Morse code. Now researchers who are in Antarctica have wi-fi to communicate with their family and use videoconferencing on a daily basis. They have tracking systems to know where they are. With the push of a button, they can start a search and rescue mission. They can carry in their computer all their libraries or gigabytes of scientific information. Telemedicine can help them if necessary. More efficient clothing, more energy-rich food, and more precise instruments. Undoubtedly, technologies have made life much easier in that remote continent.

However, what technologies cannot replace is the spirit of collaboration that is created among the members of an Antarctic station. There, we are all aware that we depend on each other, both for the success of our scientific work and for facing the dangers and difficulties of the Antarctic. Maybe the feeling that you form a team with your teammates is the best gift that Antarctica gives you.

Read: How MBA Bootcamps Teach Leadership Development

In extreme conditions, such as those on the seventh continent, what are the roles of the leaders and the team members?

We go to Antarctica to do scientific work. Therefore, the role of the leaders is to coordinate men and logistics so that this work can be carried out successfully. But, as I said before, it is a place where everything changes rapidly (weather, marine currents, people's own emotions...) and the slightest mistake can endanger the mission and lives.

This demands a very high dose of prudence on the part of the leader. Many years ago, a good friend of mine – head of the Bulgarian station and with a long experience in the Antarctic – taught me that the only verb that is conjugated in that continent is "to try". You can never be sure of what we are going to face the next day or in the next few hours. Therefore, we must be willing to change the most meticulously prepared plan, even to abort it if circumstances so advise. That demands from the members of the team an attitude of trust in the leader, because for them their scientific work comes first and they do not usually agree when the plan has to be changed, much less if it provokes the cancellation of their scientific activities.

You also have to make risky decisions at certain times. In this case, the prudence of the leader is as necessary as the trust of the team members in that leader’s decisions.

Your scientific work is dedicated to solving a major global environmental issue – the destruction of the ozone layer. Does your career suggest that a responsible leader should be ready to go to the end of the world for what they believe is right?

Of course, you must be willing to do whatever it takes to carry out what you think is right. I think we have already talked about fighting to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves in order to achieve our dreams. When you have a clear idea of what you want to achieve, you are willing to do everything to achieve it. Even to go to the end of the world. Besides, I am sure that, as happened to me in Antarctic, you will be rewarded much more than you expect.

What does it take to build and lead the right team and gain the support of the decision-makers?

The right team is hard to build. In life, few things are perfect. Normally, you have to work with the people you have, and try to convey your enthusiasm to achieve team cohesion. It is not simple, but it can be achieved.

Regarding the support of decision-makers, again, it is the leader's enthusiasm and ability to communicate that are the keys to achieving it. Although the project must also be well-founded, we cannot “sell smoke”, as we usually say in my country.

You also have to know how to find the right place for your projects. For years I was struggling hard to convince the decision-makers of the institution where I worked of the importance of the projects, I presented to them. The problem was that this institution was not suitable for my ideas, so my proposals did not resonate with the decision-makers. It was when I left that institution and began to work in another, whose mission was appropriate for my projects, that those other decision-makers began to enthusiastically support my ideas. Do not bang your head against a brick wall: if you cannot demolish it easily, it's best to surround it. The good leader has to keep this in mind.

How many countries have a presence in Antarctica today and what is the spirit on the continent?

At present, more than 50 countries are interested in carrying out scientific activities in Antarctica. Of these, 29 have demonstrated that interest by developing coherent research programmes in the continent, and this is the case of our countries, Bulgaria and Spain. These countries are part of the group of consultative countries of the Antarctic Treaty, where decisions are made concerning this continent.

When the Antarctic Treaty came into force in 1961, Antarctica became a territory used exclusively for peaceful uses and for scientific research, a continent for peace and science. Since then, the spirit that lives in the activities developed there has been cooperation. The stations of any nation are open to researchers from other countries, so it is normal to have scientists from several countries.

There is also cooperation for logistics issues, for minimising the environmental impact, for search and rescue operations, for environmental emergencies... cooperation is the main working tool in Antarctica. I wish I could extend this spirit of cooperation from Antarctica to other regions of the planet, and why not to all of humanity.

Read: The Entrepreneurial Mindset that Will Boost Your Career

Who are your neighbours on the political map of the seventh continent?

In the vicinity of the Spanish research station of which I used to be in charge is the Bulgarian station “St. Kliment Ohridsky”. Relationships have always been very cordial and, in addition to supporting our scientific work, we celebrate Christmas festivities and birthdays together. It is always hard to spend those moments away from the family, but the presence of good friends, as they are, makes these moments easier to bear.

Personally, I consider that we have had great luck with these "neighbours". We are two peoples with very similar temperaments and ways. Friendship has arisen spontaneously among many of us. In addition, the members of the Bulgarian team are usually good skiers and climbers. When I was in charge of the Spanish station, I was sure that, if someone from my team had an accident, they would come to the rescue. At one point they even showed me that they were willing to risk their lives to help us. You cannot ask a neighbour for any more.

As a writer and scientist, have you ever wondered why the names of all the continents except Europe start with the letter A?

Well I have to admit that I had never paid attention to it. But it is a simple coincidence. Antarctica emerged as the opposite of the Arctic, which in turn comes from the Greek word for “bear”, in reference to the Ursa Minor constellation, where the polar star is located.

America has its origin in the first world map, made in 1507 by a German cosmographer, and where Americo Vespucci's suggestion of considering the lands discovered by Columbus as a new continent was followed for the first time.

Australia comes from the Latin word Australis, which means “south”, and also incorporates the Spanish name for the Habsburg Dynasty, “Casa de Austria”, who ruled Spain at that time.

Asia is the name that the Greeks gave to the western area of the Anatolian peninsula in present-day Turkey, later used for all lands to the east.

Africa comes also from a Greek word that came to mean "without cold".

In any case, the division of lands into these continents is more cultural and historical than geographical. Continent means "contiguous lands". In that case, Europe and Asia should form a single unit, to which could be added Africa since the Suez Canal is artificial, leaving one continent that should be called Eurafrasia.

I think it's better not to look for mysteries where there is only pure chance. But thanks for the question, it has made me think. It is good to question everything.

This article is original content produced by Advent Group and included in the 2018-2019 annual Access MBA, EMBA, and Masters Guide under the title “Learning from Explorers”. The latest online version of the Guide is available here.

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